‘I’m Pretty Good With Punching Bags, Too’ : Leader of Fitness Pack Is 92

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Times Staff Writer

Carson resident Lizzie Atwood climbs on an exercise bicycle and pedals for one, two, three miles. Without a huff or a puff, she walks over to a floor mat for arm-circling, toe-touching, neck-stretching and knee-bending.

She has already finished a workout on a large machine with dangling handlebars--for an exercise called the “Latin pull”--during which her 4-foot-6 frame supported 20 pounds of weight.

She also has wrapped up a warm up on the leg curl. Lying face down on a stiff bench with weights atop her ankles, Atwood boosted 10 pounds. Once, twice . . . eight times.


“Tired?” she scoffs, only midway through her twice-weekly workout. “I still have lots of energy.”

She walks toward another exercise machine, pauses and adds, “I’m pretty good with punching bags, too.”

In the aggressive world of Southern California fitness, Atwood’s weightlifting and conditioning routine may not seem to qualify her as a powerhouse. But many--including Atwood--insist that at 92 years old, she is nothing less.

Not Watching Soap Operas

“I have no trouble at all,” she says, firmly dismissing the idea that age would get in her way. “I’m strong and healthy. There are a lot of seniors I know that should get up to exercise but, no, they just sit and watch their (soap opera) stories.”

Atwood is one of about 70 Carson residents over the age of 55--she is both the oldest and the “role model”--who participate in the city’s year-old senior citizen weightlifting and conditioning program, held three days a week in the Fabela Chavez Boxing Center.

According to instructor Maria Mason, most of the senior participants have some health problems but are encouraged to pursue a supervised dose of good exercise to gain strength, increase flexibility and feel better about themselves.


“Most seniors don’t exercise as much as they should,” Mason said. “They’re afraid to go out at night, and they don’t get around too much. Some of them may occasionally ride a bike, but that’s not enough.”

For those who might otherwise grow into sedentary ways, the senior weightlifting program offers group exercise, an array of Universal weight machines, punching bags, a treadmill, five exercise bicycles and an opportunity for senior friendships.

“Weightlifting is not only body building--what you see on television,” said 39-year-old Mason, who is aiming for a nursing career. “It helps to condition the whole body and, for many of these seniors, it provides medical help.”

Exercises Monitored

Mason, who has run the program since its inception, says she keeps track of seniors’ medical problems--many, like Atwood, have some type of heart problem--and monitors participants’ exercises.

“Aerobics classes are too fast for the seniors; we let them work out at their own pace and we watch them because some try to overdo it,” she said. “A lot of what we do here is what they’d do in a therapy class, but it’s free here. In those kind of places they’d get charged $75 a half-hour.”

Atwood says the results are what count most.

” . . . When you get old, you feel tight if you always just sit around,” the spry, 126-pound woman said. “But if you do exercises, then your whole body is looser and you feel better.”


Although Atwood was not familiar with the machines she now sweats over until three years ago, when at 89 she enrolled in a YMCA class, she maintains that even the first workout experience was never frightening.

“I never saw anything yet that scared me,” said Atwood, who has also tried riding a pig, an elephant and the Goodyear blimp. Her other affections include slot machines, mystery novels--”Love stories are too mushy”--and sweets.

Atwood, a Carson resident for about 30 years, concedes that she may have been somewhat prepared for her exhaustive workouts by virtue of the constant activity that has always been a part of her life.

A previous resident of Norfolk, Neb. (“You know, Johnny Carson’s hometown”), she raised 11 children and three grandchildren, tended a 1 1/2-acre garden, fixed dinners for 16 and never owned an automobile.

“I think all that had a lot to do with it,” reflects Atwood, whose husband died at age 83 in 1970. “I’ve always kept busy.”

Says Atwood’s daughter, Ella May Whittenburg, with whom Atwood lives, “She had a heart attack when I was 6, and the doctor told her to take it easy. She said that there was nothing she could do about that; she had kids to take care of.


“Momma was always very supple,” added Whittenburg, who is 65 years old and also attends the Carson conditioning classes. “In fact, when I need something from the bottom of the cupboard, she usually gets it for me.”

Her fitness, Atwood maintains, will give her many more years.

“Always, when I was a kid, I said I’d live to be 100, and I think I’m going to make it,” she said. “If I live to be 100, that’s a pretty good age.”

“She started knitting a sweater in 1950 and said she’d get back to it when she got old,” Whittenburg said. “She hasn’t gotten back to it yet.”

Atwood’s feisty sense of spirit has rubbed off on the other seniors, according to some of the participants and instructor Mason.

“For those who don’t exercise much, I think she is a role model,” said Marie Peterson, 58, who has been involved in the program seven months. “That she is willing to try everything shows something of her spirit. I just hope I can move around like she does when I’m 92.”

“Lizzie keeps the other people going,” Mason said. “She is an inspiration to seniors. She has a lot of determination, and determination is what keeps people alive.”